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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Clarice and the Hostage Ostrich
A Brainy Bird Tall Tale (no.2)
Ross Hunter, illustrated by Catherine Hunter

Now listen in, Clara, Celia and Emma! We’re going on a rescue mission. It’s a shocker, and it might get nasty. Get your camouflage plumage on. We meet in an hour.”

When Clarice calls her Gals, it’s an order. The ostriches and cousin Emma Emu were excited, curious and worried. Normally, Clarice says it’ll be as safe as houses, and there are war wounds to treat (and show off). So when she starts by promising something nasty, the gals get nervous.

“All present? Roll call. Quack up: Clara, Celia, Emma? Good.”

A bit unnecessary, the girls thought. Even a bird can count to three. But with Clarice in sergeant–major mood, it’s best not to chirp up.

“Ahem... croaked Emma’s deep throat. And?”

“Ah! You’ve brought Cyd along. Easy to miss a four metre python. She could be useful, thank you Emma.”

Cyd blushed a little, as they remembered her flying elastic antics catching the fat thief.

“Now, where was I? I was out in the fields yesterday stretching my legs and getting some fresh air, when I smelled birds! The eyes said cows and sheep, but the nostrils said feathers. I followed my nose to a nasty grey barn surrounded by barbed wire, looking like a prison. I legged it over the wire and squeezed through a little door. It was horrible, gals: thousands of luckless chickens cooped up in cages.

“We have to rescue them! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, its picking on birds!”

She sat down with a large hurrumph, pink around the gills, eyes popping even more than usual.

“Err, great idea,” said Celia, thinking the opposite. Celia was the best educated and brightest bird, wise enough not to twitter like the others. She thinks before doing, which is unusual nowadays. She also nibbles while she thinks, so she is rather plump, and the most rounded of the team.

She had reason to worry, as we shall see.

“But how are you going break in, and get the chickens out? Farmers tend to have guns, and we are not exactly small targets.”

The others, even Clarice, gulped. This is quite a sight in a long-necked bird.

“We, Celia, we! Birds of a feather, stick together. Teamwork makes the impossible simple. Our feathered friends in the forest have agreed to help. I have got a spotter buzzard, an owl, if he can stay awake, some woodpeckers, pigeons and two crows to help with the tricky bits. They have already stolen me a gate key. Let’s go! There’s not a moment to lose. If we delay, the chickens’ goose will be cooked.”

Clarice scrambles words like other people scramble eggs. But she means well.

“Good cluck!”

A wobble of ostriches, a snake, two hoodie crows and a buzzard set off with a brisk goose-step. Next to the nasty farm, they stood in the apple orchard, very still, with leaves over their feathers, and heads on the ground, looking like lollipop trees. Their eyes were not buried, and watched the farmer all the time. Toe nail by toenail they edged forward, nearer and nearer. When the farmer went round the back, they rushed in. Clarice had the crows’ key, and opened up. Emma and Cyd chased the guard dogs into a shed and shut them in. Clara and Celia ripped open the barn doors, and ran through, flinging the cages open.

“This way, chickens,” yelled Clarice, and a tumult of frightened, fluffy, wide eyed birds staggered into the sunlight. They streamed out of the farm and into the safety of the woods. Clarice led, Emma and Clara escorted. Cyd and the buzzard kept a very careful eye on each other, Cyd hissing and the buzzard mewing. Two pheasants flew in circles overhead, like vultures. Two fox cubs (Sasha and Boris, since you ask) and a ferret (I don’t know his name, perhaps you do?) kindly offered to help, but were politely invited to clear off.

So far so good, except I’ve missed Celia. Suddenly, the two crows (they are twins, Hamish and Ewan) raced to the front with terrible news:

“Celia has been captured! The farmer has trapped her—she was too wide to fit through the end door!”

The chicken convoy carried on to the woods with Clara and Emma, while Clarice went back to the farm. Celia could not be seen but the farmer was standing with a gun in one hand and a loudspeaker in the other.

“Ahoy there, you scrawny necked oversized turkey!” He was not very polite, by farmers’ standards. Clarice bristled. “If you are looking for your sister, she’s inside. My, she’s a big girl— lots of meat on her. Listen, bird-brain: get my chickens back, or your mate gets the chop. She will be chops and steak by sunrise unless you cough up the chicks.”

Clarice was scared but furious. “Don’t count your chickens, mister!” she whispered to herself. She joined the others for a war council.

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s kidnappers! Nobody takes an ostrich hostage, especially not our Celia.”

“But what can we do?” cried Clara. “Are we going to send the chickens back?”

“No chance. Give me a moment. Let me have a butcher’s at the situation.”

“What? Is that Cockerel rhyming slang again?” asked a puzzled python.

“Sorry, yes: butcher’s hook = look!”

“That’s it! Got it! Clarice suddenly scratched and pecked out a new battle plan in the soil for the feathered few.

Night fell. The farmer and his dogs kept a wary watch. Everything was quiet. Too quiet. First he got fidgety, then scratchy, dozy, irritable and panicky. The moon hid. An owl hooted. Celia heard it and started screeching and kicking her cage. The dogs went mad and barked and howled. The farmer went inside and shouted at Celia, who pecked him, and kicked his dogs, who bit him. His shotgun went off and scrattled the roof. With a bigger bang, everything went black, including the floodlights outside. Six woodpeckers are handy if you want to chop a wooden electricity pole.

A riot in the dark. The owl dive-bombed the farmer’s hat. The three free big birds made a dreadful din, drumming and rattling the walls, and the crows harried the dogs. Cyd slid under the door, opened Celia’s cage, and for good measure tripped up the farmer. He fell face first in an awful lot of awful bird manure. The pigeons added to it. They left him there.

Safely home, they partied. Feathers flew.

“Welcome back, Celia,” said Clara, “and thank you Clarice— we did some good today. But it was a bit too exciting.”

“Come now, girls. As I always say, if you don’t stick your neck out, you won’t win the race! Be proud birds. Remember: no quills, no thrills!”.

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